Edge 281—April 16, 2009
SIR JOHN MADDOX, who served 22 years as the editor of Nature, was a trained physicist, who has served on a number of Royal Commissions on environmental pollution and genetic manipulation. His books include Revolution in Biology, The Doomsday Syndrome, Beyond the Energy Crisis, and What Remains to be Discovered: The Agenda for Science in the Next Century.
As editor of Nature for 22 years (the 70s to the 90s), John Maddox was a dominant figure in a golden age of science. A fierce proponent of reason, rationalism, and science-based thinking, he ran the best publication of its kind in the world and gave those in his orbit permission to be great. His friendship meant a great deal to me, as did his support and encouragement of Edge and the third culture.
To honor and to remember John Maddox, we are republishing below his 1997 Edge interview: "Complexity and Catastrophe A Talk With Sir John Maddox"
John Maddox, who recently stepped down as editor of Nature, occupies a unique place in today's culture. During the past 23 years he managed to build Nature into the premier publication of its kind, while still retaining the respect of the international science community for his intellect and writing.
In this discussion he talks about what we need to be concerned about: the increasing accumulation of data on a huge scale, lack of quantitative progress in biology, infection, impact, cloning, and the stability of the human genome.
SIR JOHN MADDOX, who served 22 years as the editor of Nature, was a trained physicist, who has served on a number of Royal Commissions on environmental pollution and genetic manipulation. His books include Revolution in Biology, The Doomsday Syndrome, Beyond the Energy Crisis, and What Remains to be Discovered: The Agenda for Science in the Next Century.
COMPLEXITY AND CATASTROPHE
JB: Let's talk about the questions you're asking yourself.
MADDOX: There's an extremely interesting question that seems to me to be very urgent: how on earth is science going to cope with the accumulation of data, on a huge scale, of recent years. This relates to another question that hasn't been given enough attention in recent years: when on earth is biology going to become a quantitative science, like physics and chemistry - when there's good evidence to believe that it can't make progress in some fields without becoming much more quantitative.
The most successful efforts have come from the study of fear. Fear is a relatively tractable emotion, unlike love or hope which are difficult to pin down. It's always easier to study brain functions that involve clearly defined stimuli and responses than those that don't. For fear, you can easily create experimental situations where the onset of a simple stimulus that warns of impending danger elicits a set of stereotyped responses in an animal, like a rat, that are very similar to the kinds of responses that occur in a human facing danger. By following the flow of the stimulus through the brain from the stimulus processing pathways to the response control networks, it's possible to identify the basic neural circuits involved. We've done this for fear.
Let me give an illustration of what I mean. In a field like cell biology, everyone now has a clear picture of how the cell cycle is driven. You have proteins called cyclins, which are meant to interact with another protein called Cdk. Cdk plus cyclin activates two successive steps essential to the cell cycle. One of them is the replication of the cell's DNA; the other is the actual fission of the cell into two daughter cells. It seems to me high time that people recognize that the complexity of this system is so great that it can't really be dealt with in the simple way in which textbooks ordinarily deal with description, i.e. the explanation of events.
If, for example, you have an ordinary bacterial cell going through the process of cell division, it may be prompted to do that by some external signal in the environment; it may be prompted to do it simply because time has passed - twenty minutes is the length of time it takes the E. Coli to divide into two, and maybe just twenty minutes is up. There are several different molecular influences acting on this complex of cyclin and Cdk which is what actually triggers off the cell division. The complexity of the problem is so great that you can't comprehend it in the language I've been using; you can't comprehend it in the language of the textbooks, because it has become a mathematical problem. Nevertheless, very few people take this seriously.
There's more to it than that. I'm advocating that in the case of the cell cycle this is a specific biological problem. How do we understand the cell cycle? What makes a cell divide? What can we say about the competing influences on a cell - the external environment, the internal need of the cell, the need of some other cell in the same organism. How do these competing influences conspire to decide that the cell is now going to divide into two. What we need are mathematical models for saying what actually goes on.
There are other fields like that. Take the way in which the muscles in our arms work. Any molecular biologist will now tell you this understanding is one of the big triumphs of the past ten or fifteen years, that muscle fibers are made of actin and myosin, two proteins - and the idea is that the myosin molecule which is smaller than the actin molecule, acts as a kind of enzyme at the head of the actin fiber, that can ratchet itself along a parallel actin fiber.
Molecular biologists say, ah, we now understand how muscles contract. But nobody has done the thermodynamics of this problem. It's obviously a matter of great interest to the world at large to know how much energy is used. The molecular biologist will tell you it comes from ATP. ATP, adenosine triphosphate, is actually the universal source of energy in living cells, and everyone says that's fine, but actually what are the thermodynamic aspects? This question is not considered, and it's a crucial question, because that's the kind of consideration that would tell us when it is that muscles become tired, when they no longer function, or when they become rigid, and go into spasm. There are all kinds of important abnormalities in muscle behavior that would be explained by thermodynamics, if people put their minds to the task. The molecular biologists may have answered the "how ? question, but they will not be able to answer the "why?" question until somebody has done the thermodynamics.
What I'm saying underneath all this is that perhaps molecular biology got itself into the condition in which it's far too easy to get data, and therefore there is no incentive to sit down and think about the data and what they mean. But I'm sure that as the years go by, and not many years, people are going to have to be thinking much harder about how they get accurate quantitative data about the behavior of cells, muscles - all these things in living creatures.
JB: What is the relation of the acquisition of such data to the development of technological tools that allow you to formulate models and execute on those models. Are your perceptions related to the development in increased computational power?
MADDOX: The case I'm making actually doesn't depend on the improvement of computer technology, but what you say is absolutely right; that to solve some of these problems is going to require unprecedented computer technology. But let me illustrate it this way: suppose you want to understand how a cloud functions, a cloud in the sky. Sometimes you get rain out of a cloud, but not always - you see clouds up there but no rain coming out of them. Why is that? The reason is that in a cloud you have a constant upward and downward flow of drops of water, particles of ice and so on, and it's in a dynamic situation. For every cloud the bottom is at some temperature and the top is at another temperature - a lower temperature, of course. Sometimes this dynamic stability of the cloud becomes unstable, perhaps because there's a shift of the temperature, perhaps because something goes through it like a projectile, an aircraft perhaps which may leave a trail of condensation behind it if it's travelling through the humid atmosphere, But you can only understand cloud behavior and answer the question when will this cloud produce rain, if you have a model which can be in that case quite a simple model.
In the case of the cell, and the cell cycle, it's a much more complicated model I'm looking for, and there in reality one would need supercomputers to handle the model The models people have built so far - I'm thinking of John Tyson at the Virginia Polytechnic and Albert Goldbeter at the Free University in Brussels -have been handled on ordinary desktops, but everyone agrees they're not sufficiently refined. Once you start refining them you get into real problems. But there's some parts of science that can only be understood when you make a model. The cell cycle is one, the muscle is another, and each of them, being biological problems, are very complicated.
JB: Speaking of cells, let's jump off this track for a minute and talk about the cloning experiment in Scotland. People are having a hard time getting their heads around it.
MADDOX: I look at the scientific importance of that experiment in the following way: it seems to me is that it is a demonstration that you can take an ordinary cell from a person's body, a somatic cell as it's called, and recreate the genome from that. The reason that's interesting and important is that up until now people haven't been sure whether the DNA in every cell of our body retains the power of making an embryo. This experiment shows that that happens. You can in principle take a cell from your skin or anywhere and make it into an embryo which then grows up into a person. That rules out a number of possibilities for the ways in which different tissues of our body have their different characteristics. Now a liver cell and a kidney cell are outwardly very different; a skin cell and a nerve cell are very different to look at, in their properties, and their behavior. But in practice, the difference could be because their genes have been changed in some way. This experiment in Scotland shows their genes have not been changed radically. They've been silenced, perhaps, but only temporarily. That's very important.
Now as to the practical importance, it seems to me that the immediate value of it is in animal husbandry, and that is in those fields where people have been trying to use sheep, or pigs, or cows, to generate biochemicals - to make medicines in sheep. There's a lot of interest in this. The procedure is quite simple: you introduce the human gene responsible shall we say for making insulin, into sheep, and then you collect the insulin from the sheep, and you find it's human insulin, not sheep insulin. Thus you have natural human medicine generated on a farm.
This kind of work is very difficult, because it's very much a matter of chance to where the human insulin gene will go. If you can take a successful chance, a case where the gene has gone in the right place and it's producing in the sheep a lot of insulin, then you can clone that sheep and get many many other sheep. You don't have to rely on chance any more. So that's going to be the immediate practical value.
The dangerous question is what happens when people start doing it to themselves - to people. For what it's worth, in Britain and many other countries, it's against the law to do this; it's a criminal offense to manipulate the human embryo beyond 14 days of life, and it's in fact a criminal offense to do so without the approval of a licensing authority. How effective that interdiction would be in other countries is anybody's guess. My guess is that countries like Morocco, which has been in the vanguard of sex change operations for many, many years will be in the vanguard of people cloning. So in that spirit, it's a question of waiting to see how the technology works out, and trying to get some kind of international understanding on the circumstances where it would make a lot of sense.
Are there any circumstances in which it would make a lot of sense? I can think of one. Coming back to one of the other questions I mentioned at the beginning, suppose we got into a situation where we had reason to believe that there was something wrong, something inherently wrong, with a set of genes that people have inherited, which have been evolved, of course, over the past four and a half million years, since we separated from the great apes. Suppose that we had reason to believe that one of those genes was going to cause trouble as time went on. For example, there is a case which one shouldn't make too much of, but's it's an illustrative case, of Huntington's disease, where there's a normal gene in every one of us, which makes a protein called huntington - nobody knows what its function is. This gene - this gene at cell division, when people procreate, produces a bit of nonsense at the end, and if the bit of nonsense is longer than a certain amount, it actually gives a person Huntington's disease - and he or she dies. That's bad news. There are half a dozen other diseases like that, same unbalanced mechanism. If there were a lot of those incidences, you could pretty well say that the time will come in the evolution of people when we'll all be dying of Huntington's. One way of avoiding it would be to clone people who didn't have this propensity. That's about the only circumstance in which I can see people cloning, as the last resort for the human race to avoid a calamity that would be brought about by gross instability of the human genome. I'm not saying that this is a real prospect now, but maybe in a hundred generations it could be.
JB: What other areas are causes of concern to you?
MADDOX: I've got a very simple view about the environmental problem that we all know about which is that a great deal of the excitement there's been in the past 25 years about the environment can be boiled down to this: one can say look, you can get whatever environment you wish, provided you are prepared to pay for it. You can get air as clean as you like, water as clean as you like provided that taxes, and the regulation of the private sector is tight enough to meet the standards laid down. This does mean, of course, that the countries that can afford a clean environment are the rich countries, and the environment they purchase is a big purchase - sometimes out of public funds, sometimes out of private funds. Poor countries can't afford a decent environment, but as they get rich they will enjoy the wealth necessary to make them see that a clean environment is good for them.
The real environment problems now, it seems to me, are things like infection. We've had AIDS pop up since the early 1980's; it's been a big shock to people that there could be such a completely novel disease doing such terrible damage and apparently untreatable by existing remedies. It's my belief that there must be many other diseases like this waiting for us as the centuries tick by. Suppose, for example, that there were a really infectious cancer virus, something which could just give you lung cancer if you took it in as if it were flu. There's only one known human cancer virus at present, but there are many in the cases of domestic animals like cats, such as the leukemia virus that's well known. The only human cancer known is papilloma virus which causes cervical cancer. And we all know that quite apart from these bizarre novel viruses, there are ordinary bacteria, like E. Coli, that from time to time acquire mutations that make them more virulent. The new E. Coli strain 170, for example, has caused a lot of damage in the United States, in Japan, and now in Britain. Dozens of people have died of food poisoning, in effect.
These bacteria are going to become more and more common as the years go by because we are putting the bacteria under such enormous pressure with the intelligent use of antibiotics in hospitals, curing the sick, and so on, the bacteria really have nowhere to go unless they become more virulent.
So we must expect that however good the defenses are - by defenses I mean the drugs, the hygiene - the bacteria are going to keep on getting more virulent unless they can be really hit hard. We have the prospect ahead of us of increasing threats from viruses and bacteria, and the organisms that cause diseases like malaria. It's actually part of the price we pay for living longer, for being healthier. It's just one of those things, something that one ought to reckon with, not wring one's hands about.
There's another worry, one which perhaps sounds unreasonable. I believe that it's only a matter of time before the world will have to plan to avoid catastrophe by the impact of asteroids. It's now known that 64 million years ago the Cretaceous Period and the dinosaurs were brought to an end because there was a big impact of an asteroid ten kilometers across - about six miles across - the impact site has been found on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, and the crater it left in the ground is 180 kilometers - about 110 miles across. It put up dust into the atmosphere, and the dust stayed there for so long that the vegetation died off, and the dinosaurs that ate grass died off with it, and lots of other species as well. That kind of event is likely to recur every few tens of millions of years.
Luckily, the techniques are good enough to be able to pick up about 90% of the objects that size in the neighborhood of the earth. They're called asteroids, or they may be comets. The biggest difficulty is that of a cometary impact because comets travel at a faster speed than asteroids and the warning would be less. But if you think that the whole world was put to an end 64 million years ago pretty well, by one impact, is it not sensible that the human race should do something to protect its own stake in the future? I believe we should be planning to do something about events like that that might happen in the future. Of course smaller impacts can do a lot of damage too. I think it's only a matter of time before people will be setting out to track those things, and to destroy them.
JB: How will this be implemented?
MADDOX: There are lots of very interesting problems that people haven't really thought about; for example, the best way of avoiding an impact is to explode a nuclear weapon near the projectile. If you can catch it early enough, shall we say several days before it's going to hit the earth, then a quite small nuclear weapon, shall we say 100 megatons, would be enough to nudge it in one direction or the other, but the most efficient way is actually to slow it down; to explode the thing in front of the asteroid. There are a number of associated hazards - if the explosion were not absolutely accurately timed, it might blow the asteroid up, and that might seem good news except there would then be several fragments, and one of those would certainly hit the earth, and it might still be quite big. So the best thing is a carefully controlled explosion to nudge the thing away.
The trouble with that is that the Russians and the United States are now against the deployment of nuclear weapons in space; the Chinese are probably against the development of other people's nuclear weapons in space; nobody has talked about the question anyway. So the idea that it might be announced there's going to be an impact a year from now wouldn't actually leave enough time for people to get around the table and decide what best to do about it. My own opinion is that there's going to have to be rather formal negotiation quite soon on what would happen if there were an impending impact. There would have to be arrangements that would make sure that no nuclear weapon authorized for use under this program could be used to divert an asteroid onto some sensitive part of the world, like China or Russia - and so on. All kinds of problems.
JB: How much time would we have?
MADDOX: It depends. In the worst case there would be hardly any warning at all - a couple of days. A couple of days is too little time to do anything. And the chance that a large object, ten-kilometer object, would arrive with only two or three days' warning is probably about ten percent. No program that one can think of devising is going to avoid the worst case - you can't get absolute security - but you could at least hope to get rid of ninety percent of the big impacts.
In the case of asteroids, the warning probably would be quite long, possibly even two or three years, because these asteroids make circuits about the sun just like the planets do, but they go in eccentric orbits, which is why they can hit the earth. This means that if you pick one up on a particular orbit, you might be able to figure out that on its next orbit, or its next but one, it's going to hit the earth. You've got quite some time to plan what to do in that case. And the feasibility of doing something will of course improve as time passes, so in that case one could begin by hoping to avoid half the large objects, quite soon, and, maybe in a hundred years, to avoid ninety percent of the large objects. However, we'll still be stuck with the problem of the ten percent.
JB: How do these ten percent sneak in?
MADDOX: They begin as comets and the thing about comets is that nobody is entirely clear how they find their way into the inner solar system. The theory - and there's no confirmation of this at all - is that right at the edge of the solar system, roughly at the place where the sun's gravitation field is comparable with the gravitational field due to external objects, like molecular clouds, other stars, and so on - there's a cloud of cometary material called the Oort Cloud, named after the Dutch astronomer Van Oort. What's said to happen is that these objects are either deflected into the solar system by a passing star, or attracted in by some conjunction of one of the outer planets with Jupiter, so that they start drifting into the solar system.
They spend some time with Neptune, and some time with Saturn, some time with Jupiter, and either they become asteroids, in which case there's relatively little problems, or in some extreme cases they start heading in from the outer region of the solar system, and they just make one pass at the sun. That's the most dangerous case, because these hyperbolic comets, as they are called, are traveling very fast, and they haven't been seen before, and they will only make one pass at the sun anyway. In that case it would really be quite hard to be sure that one could spot them many days in advance of an impact. That would be curtains.MADDOX: They begin as comets and the thing about comets is that nobody is entirely clear how they find their way into the inner solar system. The theory - and there's no confirmation of this at all - is that right at the edge of the solar system, roughly at the place where the sun's gravitation field is comparable with the gravitational field due to external objects, like molecular clouds, other stars, and so on - there's a cloud of cometary material called the Oort Cloud, named after the Dutch astronomer Van Oort. What's said to happen is that these objects are either deflected into the solar system by a passing star, or attracted in by some conjunction of one of the outer planets with Jupiter, so that they start drifting into the solar system.
They spend some time with Neptune, and some time with Saturn, some time with Jupiter, and either they become asteroids, in which case there's relatively little problems, or in some extreme cases they start heading in from the outer region of the solar system, and they just make one pass at the sun. That's the most dangerous case, because these hyperbolic comets, as they are called, are traveling very fast, and they haven't been seen before, and they will only make one pass at the sun anyway. In that case it would really be quite hard to be sure that one could spot them many days in advance of an impact. That would be curtains.
JB: Ok, we've talked about data handling, infection, cloning, and impact. Going beyond cloning, let's talk about the stability of the human genome.
MADDOX: I dealt with that in the case of the sheep but let me add this to it, because I think it's important. Up until now it's been the assumption of most generations living on the surface of the earth, that the ideal condition of human beings is that in which we recognize that we're a part of the natural world, and our goal is harmony with the natural world. If you think of it, what natural selection, Darwinian natural selection, does, is precisely to make the successful species, those that survive, fit for the environment at the time. It's a device for making sure that everything is in harmony with the natural world. We have accepted, I think, as the human race, that this is indeed the case, that we must accept our dependence on the natural world and our need to be in harmony with it.
What happens, then, if we learn that we are one of those many species destined to become extinct because for some reason or another our genome hasn't worked out to be quite as stable as it might have been. In those circumstances we would have a nasty choice. We would have to decide, would we not, whether or not we let ourselves become extinct, as part of our dependence on nature, part of our being a part of nature, or whether we actually struggle against it; do something about it.
My guess is that if the question of human extinction is ever posed clearly, people will say that it's all very well to say we've been a part of nature up to now, but at this turning point in the human race's history, it is surely essential that we do something about it; that we fix the genome, to get rid of the disease that's causing the instability, if necessary we clone people known to be free from the risk, because that's the only way in which we can keep the human race alive. A still, small voice may at that stage ask, but what right does the human race have to claim precedence for itself. To which my guess is the full-throated answer would be, sorry, the human race has taken a decision, and that decision is to survive. And, if you like, the hell with the rest of the ecosystem.
JB: What are the scientific issues bothering people today that don't worry you?
MADDOX: It's interesting that more than a quarter of a century has passed since the publication of The Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome document, which seemed to me to produce a far too simpleminded view of the global problem. The global problem is not the shortage of resources. It's true that we are using up petroleum at quite a rapid rate, two billion tons a year, and the amount of petroleum in the surface of the earth is not by any means infinite. But there's a natural balancing mechanism in those simple scenarios of shortage. The balancing mechanism is price. What we're pretty sure of is that we've now used up one dollar a barrel oil; it's all gone. There's some two dollar a barrel oil left in Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi Arabians are very careful about the degree to which they let their stuff be exploited, and that appears on the market at fifteen dollars a barrel like everybody else's oil. So price is really a regulator of scarcity.
Even when petroleum becomes so expensive that it's used only for the production of chemicals - some of the few chemicals that can be produced exclusively from petroleum - the world will not stop. There are plenty of other ways of generating energy which at present are more expensive than petroleum - like nuclear power, even solar power, in small quantities, like hydrogen, which can be made by electrolyzing water, and used as a fuel - so there are all kinds of ways. The future is going to be dependent upon on other sources of energy than the ones we at present use.
The argument that we're using scarce, irreplaceable sources of energy is an argument not worth its salt; not worth listening to seriously. We're using up cheap resources, and in due course we're going to have to use more expensive ones, which is an argument of course for wealth creation, economic growth. So my view of the Club of Rome's argument on the Limits of Growth is just that. It's an economic question, always has been, and it will be in the future and it will be dealt with in economic terms.
But the other environmental problems that seem to me to be much more important, are those concerning the safety of people's lives. After all, the avoidance of pollution is primarily a problem of how do you keep people healthy. That's what the end purpose is supposed to be, keeping people alive and healthy. The big threat there has been, and remains, infection, which we've talked about. It seems to me another is global warming. Global warming is the scenario that's supposed to happen when, because of the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the temperature on the surface of the earth is increasing. I'm in a very odd position on this. I accept that global warming, because of carbon dioxide, is going to be a reality at some stage in the future. I disagree with the way in which the forecasts have been made by the organization called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is under the UN umbrella, although it's really a child of the United Nations Environmental Agency and the World Meteorological Organization.
These people have produced so far two assessments of the seriousness of global warming, and they predict that during the next century the temperature will increase by between two and three degrees centigrade - which doesn't sound much but actually would be a lot. This is the average temperature, and that would mean that in places like the southern Sahara it would become even more like a desert, and it might even mean that in some parts of the United States, like Texas, it would become a bit like the Sahara.
But the real problem is that all this is based on computer modeling, and while I'm fully enthusiastic about computer modeling as a way of understanding scientific problems, and comprehending large amounts of data, I think it's dangerous to rely on computer modeling when you are trying to make predictions about the real world. In fact the satellites that have been used to measure the temperature show that the temperature is increasing less rapidly than the computer models predict, by a factor of three. So I think that the scenario is less gloomy than the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change says.
On the other hand, it's going to happen sometime, and we have to do something about it. It raises the whole question about how do you get an equitable relationship between the rich and the poor countries. The rich countries have to acknowledge that they can't unilaterally deny developing countries the right to follow in the same kind of path as they themselves have followed in their own economic development. On the other hand, the poor countries have to accept that they can't let their demands on the global system increase as rapidly as their populations increase. They have to accept some kind of restraint on population as a tradeoff. That's going to be such a terribly difficult negotiation and it's very hard to see how it could be completed in the next century.
Science is the greatest achievement of human history so far. I say that as a huge admirer of the Renaissance and the Renaissance art and music and literature, but the world-transforming power of science and the tremendous insights that we've gained show that this is an enterprise, a wonderful collective enterprise, that humanity has made a great achievement of. How are we going to make more people party to that? That's a pressing question for our century.
PRESSING QUESTIONS FOR OUR CENTURY
AC GRAYLING is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford. His most recent book is Ideas That Matter.
PRESSING QUESTIONS FOR OUR CENTURY
[AC GRAYLING]: I'm asking myself a lot of questions at the moment and I'll pick out a few that are really pressing. One is the problem about scientific literacy in contemporary society. There are huge things going in the sciences, both in fundamental sciences, like particle physics, and in the biological sciences, especially in genetics and in biomedical research involving genetic techniques. In both respects, there have got to be big changes in the way we think about the world and how we think about ourselves. And in the case of biomedicine, there are going to be differences to longevity, health and maybe even the nature of future human beings.
Everybody's got to be a participant in this conversation about what's happening in science — trying to understand it, be informed about it — and to be a participant in deciding how we go forward with these things. In order for that to happen, more people have got to be more informed about science. We have a problem at the moment, which is that far too few people go on from school into university and study science.
The point is here not about making more scientists necessarily, but making more people who are competent to observe what's happening in science, to read about it, to keep abreast of developments, to be excited by some of the things that are happening in science. And as citizens of this world of ours, to be part of the discussion about what we should and shouldn't do with our science.
The big question here is, how are we going to reorganize science education in school and how are we going to encourage more people to take more of an interest in science? And, indeed, to encourage more scientists to talk to the public more about what they're doing in science and what they think about science. So the big question for me here is, how are we going to make science, which belongs to everybody, which is important to everybody, available to everybody so that everybody can be a party, in one way or another — whether as a spectator or as a participant — in this enormous adventure.
Because, apart from anything else, science is the greatest achievement of human history so far. I say that as a huge admirer of the Renaissance and the Renaissance art and music and literature, but the world-transforming power of science and the tremendous insights that we've gained show that this is an enterprise, a wonderful collective enterprise, that humanity has made a great achievement of. How are we going to make more people party to that? That's a pressing question for our century. Starting right from the very beginnings of grade school, finding ways of making science more accessible, not frightening people away from mathematics and physics, not making them think that it's all too difficult, finding ways of drawing them in and getting them engaged — that's one.
Another big question that presses for me, and I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about it, is the question of human rights and civil liberties in our world. We think of the Western liberal democracies as representing and embodying an achievement, it started in the Enlightenment but by a process that began even before then of respecting individual autonomy, creating institutions which embody due process of law, which respect individual rights — rights to privacy lead to a big stretch of individual decision over important matters in life, like our relationships and where we live and the kinds of things that we do, protecting us from the power of the state, protecting us from the power of majorities who disagree with our own choices.
These are very significant and central things. It's a remarkable feature of the Western world, in the second half of the twentieth century that we've come pretty close to a dispensation where individuals can regard themselves as free citizens of this world and as having a marked degree of autonomy.
Tragically, because of terrorism and because of other concerns and because of crime and mainly also because of the development of technologies out of science, which have enabled us to communicate with one another much more rapidly, but also which has exposed our communications to watching eyes, whether they're state authorities or bad people. Because of these things, we've got a serious situation even in our Western liberal democracies now about the attrition, the erosion, the degrading of aspects of our civil liberties. It's tremendously important that before that goes too far, we become alert to it and we do something about it. We should get angry about some of the things that have happened, but in particular we should get energetic about protecting our civil liberties and trying to organize institutions and practices and awareness on the part of people to make them more vigilant about those things.
We see on the horizon China, which is a tremendous country, with a huge population, now one of the great economies of the world. Without any doubt at all, it's going be a superpower in the next generation or two generations. And it's tremendous important, therefore, that that country should be one which, like the best among the liberal democracies in the West at any rate, has built into it respect for human rights and for civil liberties. It doesn't at the moment; it sometimes tries to pretend that it does, but it doesn't have a good record in this respect. If it were to become a very powerful player on the world stage, it would matter tremendously whether or not it did respect these things. Now is the time, too, to be having a conversation about that, thinking a bit about the future and trying to make sure that these frameworks for protecting individuals and communities are properly in place.
My second big question is how are we going to defend civil liberties and human rights? How are we going to expand interest and commitment to this? By the way, one little footnote to that is the United Nations, which back in 1948 adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and then subsequently the Great Covenants on Civil and Political Liberties, Economic and Social rights, has become a very weak organization and a very compromised one. If you look at the United Nations Council of Human Rights, which I have some involvement with, it's a body, which has on it a majority of states and countries whose human rights records are nothing to write home about. Another difficulty, too, is that our major international instruments are somewhat compromised. Here is a great job of work to be done for anybody who's keen on the interest of individual human beings and societies and trying to make them good societies so that there can be good individual lives in them. That's my second question.
My third question is one which has much more to do with my own technical academic interests in philosophy, which have to do with the nature of consciousness and mind and of experience and perception, thought and learning; indeed, in general with questions of the relationship between individual minds and cognition and the domains over which our thinking, experience, perception, memory and theorizing range.
This is somewhat of a recondite area in philosophy, but of course it's a very important one because it has practical applications, too, for thinking about, for example, how we would construct robots, which were able to do at least some of the things that human beings can do in dealing with their environments in a very plastic and flexible way so that they can learn from their environments and be very adaptive to them.
Trying to understand the nature of mind and of mental processes and thinking about consciousness is a very big frontier issue in philosophy of mind, in psychology, in the cognitive sciences and in the neurosciences. And one thing that we're witnessing today is that the walls between all these different enterprises are coming down and they're influencing one another wonderfully, richly, fruitfully. My big question there is how do we further that process and what's going to come out of it? Because all sorts of surprising things are already becoming apparent as a result of the interconnection between these different disciplines.
My final question is about the way we're going to be reading and communicating and reflecting in the future. At the moment, we're all very interested to know about the future. Not of the book, because already we see the trend that there are different ways in which content can be delivered to people who want that content. But to the practice of reading, the practice of reflection. The nature of what underlies our ability to be good conversationalists with one another, to be reflective and informed, to have a good knowledge of the classics, but also to be very open to new ideas and new work across all the disciplines — history, the sciences, philosophy, and the literary arts.
How are people going to relate to these things in the future? That's an interesting question because in the past, of course, if you think about our culture, our culture has been one that depends tremendously on the written word. On literature. If the way that the written word gets to people changes in ways that make people use it less, and this is a phenomenon that some people claim they see with younger people now, because there are much shorter messages — tweeting one another in short text messages and so forth — that kind of phenomenon might make a difference to our cultural sensibility.
My next question is, how do we keep the best of the past while remaining flexible and open to this new world that our technologies are opening to us? Keeping alive the questioning, skeptical, fact hungry, curious attitude towards the world that the very best of people in the past have exemplified. I think the example of the late nineteenth century working class man who taught himself, who read the classics, who was inspired by them, and who went on to make great contributions — this a story that repeated itself over and over again in the United States and in the United Kingdom and elsewhere and one would like to think that that kind of excitement and self-discovery and self making will continue even in a society where the way it used to be done, by somebody taking a book off the shelf, is going into the past.
You sometimes see the comment made, and it's a very good one, that the experience of encountering texts and information and opinion and data is very different in the technologized form as against the way it is when you go look at a book, or you go and browse in a book shop. There's a very good point here — it's true. You walk into a book shop to buy a book, there are a whole lot of other books there that you see, you stumble across, you may buy one of them. When you pick up a book, you browse it, you go backwards and fore wards, unexpected things happen. And serendipity plays a huge part in the education of an individual who loves to read.
Now when you go to a technological device, you've got to be targeted. You've got to go to the thing that you're looking for and it's not all that likely that you're going to stumble across things that just come out of left field and interest you in the way that happens when you page a book. For example, you go online and you click onto a topic on a search engine, and what that search engine provides you with is alternative stuff about that topic. But not about topics that you didn't even expect to find that time. Skeptics about the new technology in a way it quite rightly alert us to the fact that this changing relationship between the mind — one's own mind — and the text that one comes across will have this new feature, and there is something to be regretted there.
This year, 2009, is the 50th anniversary of a famous lecture given by C.P. Snow, a scientist and a novelist and a civil servant — he was a government minister in Britain back in the forties and fifties. On the ninth of May, 1959, he gave this lecture in Cambridge, the Rede Lecture, called "The Two Cultures," in which he said the humanistic culture, the literary culture, on the one hand and the scientific culture on the other hand had diverged and that there was a mutual lack of comprehension across that divide, mainly, of course, from the direction of the humanities to the sciences.
An additional problem was that so many people in positions of authority in society — members of the parliament, ministers in the government — had been brought up in the humanities and didn't really have much of a scientific background at all and didn't really know or understand what was happening in the sciences. There's an old saying in the culture that C.P. Snow came out of, "let's have the experts on tap, not on top". They didn't want to have the scientists in government or in the civil service system with them unless, like him, they were people who were also recognizably humanists and therefore the MP's and others could feel comfortable with them. So he decried this diverging gap between the two cultures.
In the 50 years since he gave that lecture, that gap has widened far, far, far more. And the gulf that separates the two sides is even greater. Yet it's still the case that people who make decisions about funding policies — the people in Congress, the people who get into presidential office — tend not to be scientists, they tend to be people who have come out of the humanities or the law. The problem identified by Snow has worsened. What are we to do about that?
Well, I repeat a point that I make often, which is that the only way to bridge this divide is to increase literacy on both sides. The real urgency is increasing literacy about science on the humanities side, for those people, but it's a two-way street. Because scientists also need to realize that techniques of communication, their responsibility to society at large, places upon them a kind of duty to talk about what they're doing, to explain what they're doing, to inform people about it. There should be this interaction. This is the only way that the divide is going to be at least bridged, and of course in the ideal ultimately it would be closed.
Almost every generation thinks that it occupies the time when things are not quite as good as they were in the past. It's a very common feature of people thinking that the world is a much less safe place than it was when they were children, but that's because of course the child's experience is that the world is a very safe one, being protected by parents and the rest.
From the point of view of culture, and in particular from the point of view of British culture, a lot of visitors to the United Kingdom say how surprised they are by the unpleasant, rather raw nature, rather a degraded and superficial nature of popular culture in the United Kingdom. The tabloid newspapers, the popular magazines, which are all about celebrities, which are all about a certain kind of voyeurism — they hunt in packs, the tabloid press, chasing after people, first to extol them and then to tear them down when they're up. And that there's a presumption that if a nail sticks up, it's got to be hammered down, so anybody who's a bit special in society or sticks out in a certain way is likely to get a hammering by the tabloid press.
There is something rather sullied and sterile about popular culture in the United Kingdom. At the same time, it's always been the case that high culture in the United Kingdom — publishing, opera, ballet, music, the art scene — particularly in London, and London unfortunately, rather like Paris in France, does absorb a lot of the cultural oxygen in the country. Although other major centers, like Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh do make a contribution here, which is an important one. But high culture continues to flourish. Even despite the repeated efforts by people who are not very sympathetic towards high culture to say, "Why should this society be funding high culture for high-brows? Why should the government be giving a subsidy to two opera houses in London?" Etcetera.
But despite that, all you have to do is go to an exhibition, let's say put on at the National Gallery in London, and you can hardly get elbow room to see what's hanging on the walls because even though high culture is an avocation for a minority of society, that minority in absolute terms of course is growing all of the time. There remains a very flourishing, very vigorous cultural life, mainly in the capitol but all around the country, which is a resource for people who care about those sorts of things and who may be dismayed by the way that the popular culture has become so lowest-common-denominator. I don't think that the United Kingdom is alone in being this way, but it is pretty marked and it is pretty distressing for people who come from time to time to visit.
One thing we've witnessed in our times, of course, is the bad-tempered quarrel between on the one hand religion or the religions, and on the other hand those people who are not interested in religion. Some people say that one aspect of this is that religion is experiencing a resurgence. More people once again are becoming interested in it. I just don't think that is the case.
What is happening is the amplifiers have been turned up a lot by people on the religious side of this discussion because they feel under threat. This has happened in history before, by the way. There were precedents for this. One goes back to the sixteenth, seventeenth century when the Reformation occurred and the consequence of that was the Counter-Reformation by the Church of Rome to recover its hegemony over Europe, and that was a very bloody and painful hundred years and the tumult made it seem as though the only thing that mattered at that time was religion. Now when we look back across the landscape of history, we see that a lot more important things were happening at that time than the religious quarrel — the rise of science, the great literary efflorescence in England and in the rest of Europe. What we learn from that is that when religious people feel under threat and under pressure, they turn up the volume and they fight back and it's the sort of cornered-rat syndrome.
What we've seen in the last few decades is this. We've seen globalization impacting areas of the world. But predominantly Muslim areas of the world, where traditional conservative values have been very seriously threatened by much more open kind of societies in the liberal West, which export movies and attitudes and practices.
You can imagine, for example, a very conservative, very traditional Muslim father of teenage daughters encountering an American movie with girls in bikinis and being very worried about what effect that might have on his daughters and you can sympathize with that. That is a problem and an anxiety. You can also see how, therefore, young men, especially in countries where there might not be enough employment for them, are angered by this, angered by the difference between their own culture and others under feeling under threat. And the result has been a ratcheting up of the rhetoric, of the heat of the rhetoric. At the very margin, of course, at the very extreme, there's been violence. But generally speaking, this is not a violent phenomenon; this is a phenomenon of quarrel, of tension.
But Islam is a Western religion, too. It's in Europe, it's in North America. When Muslims in England, for example, became activist about their own community, making demands of the host community to be treated equally with other religious communities, what happened was that Jewish people and Hindu people and other Christian groupings all wanted to do the same. They all came jostling together into the public square demanding tax funding for their faith-based schools, or representation in Parliament, or dispensation from anti-discrimination laws. And so on and so on.
This angered secularists who didn't want to see this phenomenon coming up. In the closing decades of the twentieth century, people didn't talk about their religious faith if they had it very much, and if you were a secularist and you met somebody with a religious faith, as a matter of taste you didn't talk about it. But after 9/11 especially, there was a bit of a watershed. A polarization occurred. People on the secular side of the discussion were just not prepared to pussyfoot around and to "respect" people and to give them their little bit in the sun without some challenge, without a discussion, about why they were entitled to that claim.
Religious people have for a very long time said, "Respect me because I believe something." Now secularists are saying, "Why should I, especially if it's a belief in something that I don't share or that I think is challengeable?" That's my diagnosis anyway of how this bad-tempered quarrel has come up and also my diagnosis, too, of this being a phenomenon of amplification of the quarrel, not of resurgent numbers. Because we know that everywhere in the West, even in the United States of America, the number of people who lay claim to being religiously observant is decreasing.
What are we going to do about this problem now? Well, our main challenge at the moment is how we manage this situation, how we live together and cope with the difficulty of having this bad-tempered quarrel going on. We have to try as hard as we can, people on the secular side of the argument, in a calm consistent and well-informed way, to keep this discussion going and to talk about how we're going to encourage younger people, for example, to think critically, to think for themselves, not to accept things on authority, not to take the easy option which is the quick simple story that a religion can tell you, but to do the work that's required of understanding things scientifically and with deeper insights.
In the course of this bad-tempered quarrel between religion and people who have a non-religious outlook, one factor is that there are certain religious lobbyists that are well organized and very well funded. In the United States of America, for example, the Religious Right has television stations and radio programs and publications and it has lobbyists in Washington and it's been able to state its point of view very cogently and very powerfully for a long time. Whereas people, and very many of them — 30 million or so in the last poll — who self-describe themselves as agnostic as atheists or have no religious commitment are equal to one person because they're independent and they think for themselves and they haven't got their television stations and radio stations.
Now amongst all this, there is the following phenomenon. You get institutes like the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which is very well funded and is pushing the Creationist/Intelligent Design argument. And you get institutions like the Templeton Foundation, which is very wealthy and which offers a very big money prize — more valuable in money terms than the Nobel Prize — and offers it to anybody who will, in effect, make it seem that religion and science are perfectly respectable bedfellows and even, indeed, that science supports some religious claims.
If you think about this, people who do work in science in universities and elsewhere are not paid like bankers on Wall Street. You can imagine that just to say something, even if you don't really have a religious belief, to be friendly towards that point of view and you may end up with a million dollars. That's like bribery. That's a corrupting influence in this debate and a very bad one.
Just recently, somebody who is both a physicist and a religious person, John Polkinghorne, wrote a book trying to show that religion has answers to scientific questions. He launched this book on the premises of the Royal Society in London — not sponsored by the Royal Society, but because he was a fellow of the Royal Society before he became a Vicar, he was able to ask them if he could do this on their premises. It seemed to me that that was a very bad thing for the Royal Society to have done. It shouldn't have given any kind of imprimatur to this.
The Royal Society is one major institution for science in the United Kingdom and there are hundreds of church halls and other places where a book of that kind could have been launched. It was inappropriate because it had been launched there. And the Royal Society accepted money in the recent past from the Templeton Foundation for research projects. They've ceased to do so now. I used to write a column for the New Scientist magazine, which ran some Templeton ads until we complained about it. They've stopped doing that now.
It's a wonderful corner of this debate at the moment. But an important corner because here is an institution, Templeton, which is using very large sums of money and therefore a lot of influence to try to insinuate ways of thinking and talking and ideas into an enterprise — the enterprise of science — where it doesn't belong. There are other formats for it. One doesn't want to silence them. They've got a right to say what they want to say, but without muddying the waters.
I got interested in science in a way which might be regarded as a little bit unusual for the philosophical community in general. There are some philosophers who come out of science — did physics degrees or whatever — who are very knowledgeable and who work in the history and philosophy of science and who are bringing scientific insights, for example, from the neurosciences into the work that they do in the philosophy of mind and cognitive studies. But for my own part, the story is this. I was educated in the British tradition of very early on diverging between the humanities and classical languages, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the science subjects.
There had always been an implicit snobbery involved here that the clever kids would go on to the classical side of school and the ones with dirt under their fingernails and who didn't mind smells and bangs would go on to the science side of school. You were channeled, really without much discussion about what you wanted to do, into one or the other of these lines. I went on to the classic side of school and straight on into the humanities. But I very quickly realized, just because of being something of a reader and having a lively curiosity, that this meant that I was missing something tremendously important. So I started to read.
Now the fact is that out there, and for a number of decades, there have been wonderful resources for people who don't have a professional scientific background or training in science, but nevertheless give them some insights into what's going on in the sciences. The more you read, the more you interested become, the more you want to try and equip yourself with a bit of technical competency so that you can understand yet more, so you read. And in very many ways, being an autodidact in this respect is a boon because you don't go through the process of early on being told what to think about things. You're doing it all on your own.
So I became passionate about it, recognized the tremendous importance of being as literate as one could possibly be as a spectator of science and to keep up that interest. And more especially to get involved, to get involved in the discussion with scientists about what they were doing, what they were thinking, why they were doing it, where is it going? Being involved in that kind of way, too, is a powerful continuing incentive to keep learning.
This plugs into another thought that I have, which is that the education that we get in grade school and college is really just the first step out of many thousands of steps that we ought to take in the lifelong process of teaching ourselves, of being educated by what other people are doing, what's happening in the world, staying alive, staying alert to everything that's going on out there. This is the imperative. This is what we should all be deeply engaged in.
Let us move voluntarily into Capitalism 2.0 by helping what needs to be broken break on its own, converting debt into equity, marginalising the economics and business school establishments, shutting down the “Nobel” in economics, banning leveraged buyouts, putting bankers where they belong, clawing back the bonuses of those who got us here, and teaching people to navigate a world with fewer certainties.
TEN PRINCIPLES FOR A BLACK-SWAN-ROBUST WORLD [4.16.08]
In his "Ten Principles for a Black Swan-robust World", Nassim Nicholas Taleb is on the ramparts assuming an activist role in urging us "to move voluntarily into Capitalism 2.0 by helping what needs to be broken break on its own, converting debt into equity, marginalising the economics and business school establishments, shutting down the 'Nobel' in economics, banning leveraged buyouts, putting bankers where they belong, clawing back the bonuses of those who got us here, and teaching people to navigate a world with fewer certainties."
"Then we will see an economic life closer to our biological environment: smaller companies, richer ecology, no leverage. A world in which entrepreneurs, not bankers, take the risks and companies are born and die every day without making the news."
The themes Taleb develops in this manifesto are an outgrowth of his 2008 Edge original essay "The Fourth Quadrant: A Map of the Limits of Statistics". (Aslo, see The Black Swan Technical Appendix.)
NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB, essayist and former mathematical trader, is Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute. He is the author of Fooled by Randomness and the international bestseller The Black Swan.
TEN PRINCIPLES FOR A BLACK-SWAN-ROBUST WORLD
1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small. Nothing should ever become too big to fail. Evolution in economic life helps those with the maximum amount of hidden risks – and hence the most fragile – become the biggest.
2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains. Whatever may need to be bailed out should be nationalised; whatever does not need a bail-out should be free, small and risk-bearing. We have managed to combine the worst of capitalism and socialism. In France in the 1980s, the socialists took over the banks. In the US in the 2000s, the banks took over the government. This is surreal.
3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus. The economics establishment (universities, regulators, central bankers, government officials, various organisations staffed with economists) lost its legitimacy with the failure of the system. It is irresponsible and foolish to put our trust in the ability of such experts to get us out of this mess. Instead, find the smart people whose hands are clean.
4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks. Odds are he would cut every corner on safety to show “profits” while claiming to be “conservative”. Bonuses do not accommodate the hidden risks of blow-ups. It is the asymmetry of the bonus system that got us here. No incentives without disincentives: capitalism is about rewards and punishments, not just rewards.
5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity. Complexity from globalisation and highly networked economic life needs to be countered by simplicity in financial products. The complex economy is already a form of leverage: the leverage of efficiency. Such systems survive thanks to slack and redundancy; adding debt produces wild and dangerous gyrations and leaves no room for error. Capitalism cannot avoid fads and bubbles: equity bubbles (as in 2000) have proved to be mild; debt bubbles are vicious.
6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning. Complex derivatives need to be banned because nobody understands them and few are rational enough to know it. Citizens must be protected from themselves, from bankers selling them “hedging” products, and from gullible regulators who listen to economic theorists.
7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”. Cascading rumours are a product of complex systems. Governments cannot stop the rumours. Simply, we need to be in a position to shrug off rumours, be robust in the face of them.
8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains. Using leverage to cure the problems of too much leverage is not homeopathy, it is denial. The debt crisis is not a temporary problem, it is a structural one. We need rehab.
9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement. Economic life should be definancialised. We should learn not to use markets as storehouses of value: they do not harbour the certainties that normal citizens require. Citizens should experience anxiety about their own businesses (which they control), not their investments (which they do not control).
10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs. Finally, this crisis cannot be fixed with makeshift repairs, no more than a boat with a rotten hull can be fixed with ad-hoc patches. We need to rebuild the hull with new (stronger) materials; we will have to remake the system before it does so itself. Let us move voluntarily into Capitalism 2.0 by helping what needs to be broken break on its own, converting debt into equity, marginalising the economics and business school establishments, shutting down the “Nobel” in economics, banning leveraged buyouts, putting bankers where they belong, clawing back the bonuses of those who got us here, and teaching people to navigate a world with fewer certainties.
Then we will see an economic life closer to our biological environment: smaller companies, richer ecology, no leverage. A world in which entrepreneurs, not bankers, take the risks and companies are born and die every day without making the news.
In other words, a place more resistant to black swans.
[Originally pubished under the title "Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof worl" by FT.com, April 7, 2009]
Edge Link: "The Fourth Quadrant: A Map of the Limits of Statistics" By Nassim Nicholas Taleb— An Edge Original Essay [9.15.08]
Beyond Edge: The Black Swan Technical Appendix
HOW TO RAISE YOUR IQ
Poor people have I.Q.’s significantly lower than those of rich people, and the awkward conventional wisdom has been that this is in large part a function of genetics.
After all, a series of studies seemed to indicate that I.Q. is largely inherited. Identical twins raised apart, for example, have I.Q.’s that are remarkably similar. They are even closer on average than those of fraternal twins who grow up together.
If intelligence were deeply encoded in our genes, that would lead to the depressing conclusion that neither schooling nor antipoverty programs can accomplish much. Yet while this view of I.Q. as overwhelmingly inherited has been widely held, the evidence is growing that it is, at a practical level, profoundly wrong. Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, has just demolished this view in a superb new book, “Intelligence and How to Get It,” which also offers terrific advice for addressing poverty and inequality in America.
Professor Nisbett provides suggestions for transforming your own urchins into geniuses — praise effort more than achievement, teach delayed gratification, limit reprimands and use praise to stimulate curiosity — but focuses on how to raise America’s collective I.Q. That’s important, because while I.Q. doesn’t measure pure intellect — we’re not certain exactly what it does measure — differences do matter, and a higher I.Q. correlates to greater success in life.
...Throughout his life John firmly but courteously argued not only for objectivity and good manners within science, but also for the superiority of rationality over hunch or prejudice in its social discourse and practical applications. This made him the scourge of many environmentalists, anti-scientists and believers in hocus-pocus. ...
...The words used by Richard Dawkins to commend John's last book, What Remains to be Discovered, published in 1998, form a splendid epitaph for this deeply serious, occasionally mischievous man: "Having stood godfather to so much recent science, no single individual is better placed to map out what remains to be discovered. John Maddox may be the last great scientific polymath."
He is survived by Brenda, whom he married in 1960, and their son and daughter, as well as a son and daughter by his earlier partner, Nancy Fanning King.
• John Royden Maddox, editor, writer and broadcaster, born 27 November 1925; died 12 April 2009
JOHN MADDOX, EDITOR WHO ENLIVENED NATURE, IS DEAD AT 83
John Maddox, who turned the British journal Nature into an internationally influential showcase for the most recent developments in scientific research during his two stints as editor, while bringing a sense of fun and an appetite for spirited argument to its formerly staid pages, died Sunday in Abergavenny, Wales.
He was 83 and lived in London and Brecon, Wales. The cause of death was pneumonia associated with a chest infection, said his son Bruno.
Mr. Maddox, a chemist and physicist by training, drew on his experience as science correspondent for The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) to bring a new sense of competitiveness and timeliness to Nature in his 22 years as its editor. Rather than waiting for scientific papers to come to him, he beat the bushes in search of exciting material, a practice that, over time, guaranteed that the most interesting, provocative papers found their way to Nature first. Such was the competition to be published in its pages that one desperate physicist, after repeated rejections, threatened to set himself afire on the magazine’s doorsteps.
It was a mark of his skilled editorship that Nature could publish a paper on, say, the Loch Ness monster without sacrificing its authority.
“He took command of Nature in a big way,” the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins said. “He had a tremendous grasp of science in the full range, from physics to biology to public affairs as they affected the world of science.”
Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society and Britain’s astronomer royal, called Mr. Maddox “a dominant figure,” adding that “he helped establish Nature’s status internationally and built it up by developing supplements to increase its coverage.” After retiring as editor in 1995, he assumed an influential elder statesman role, acting, Mr. Rees said, “as a general guru of science and scientific policy.” ...
JOHN MADDOX 1925-2009
It was with great sadness that I and my colleagues at Nature learned of the death on Sunday of Sir John Maddox — or 'JM', as his colleagues always referred to him.
There was puzzlement, too. Yes, John had been looking frail recently, but, well, this was JM — the perpetually restless, irresistible, unstoppable force. The editor who conducted some gatherings with 'shock and awe' as some recall. The 'man with a whim of iron' as others used to call him. And the man who survived countless cigarettes and glasses of red wine, many consumed late into the night as he wrote the week's Editorials at the last possible moment.
Full tributes to him will appear in next week's issue (see www.nature.com/jm), but it is appropriate promptly to recall (JM never split an infinitive) some of the highlights of his time at Nature. He first took the reins as the editor of Nature in 1966. He was the fourth editor — the journal was founded in 1869, and his predecessors had lengthy stints, the first, Norman Lockyer, being in charge for 50 years. John served until 1973, when he was succeeded by David Davies. He then returned in 1980, and I succeeded him in December 1995.
It was during his first stint that he laid the foundations for Nature as it is today. Importantly (JM liked to start sentences with adverbs), he threw aside the highly informal and somewhat crony-based system for selecting papers and established a system of peer review. A charac teristically readable account of this can be found in his valedictory Essay in his last issue (see Nature 378, 521–523; 1995). ...
You may think that as an atheist I obviously don’t have a soul (or at any rate, don’t deserve one). So why worry? But that’s not right. The soul is a biological invention that long predates religion. The human mind evolved by natural selection to have a conscious self at its centre: a self that, while a product of the material brain, thinks of itself as something else: an immaterial soul. My atheist soul is up there with the best of them. And the souls of atheists, no less than those of religious believers, aspire to live on indefinitely and fear oblivion. That’s a main part of the job for which natural selection has designed them. ...
...Thus the situation, if we choose to see it this way, has all the makings of tragedy (if not a tragic farce). Natural selection has, on the one hand, been shaping up individual human beings at the level of their souls to believe in themselves and their intrinsic worth, while it has on the other hand been taking steps to ensure that these same individuals, on the level of their bodies, grow old and die and — since by this stage of a life the genes no longer have any interest in ameliorating it — most likely die miserably and in a state of dreadful disillusion.
MIRRORING THE WORLD
..."Video has become a favoured means of consuming content primarily because of the growth of broadband … else it is too painful to stream and view,” says N. Udhay Shankar, who founded one of India’s earliest web companies and helped to kickstart the Linux movement in India.
While TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is the most well-known of its kind, you can listen to Salman Rushdie talk on the Enchantress at Authors @Google, of Florence or Brian Cox talking about the God Particle at Edge.Org. ...
From global warming to economic crises, things seem to be turning worse. At this time of pessimism prevailing over optimism, the world needs some antidotes to this epidemic of negative views. But what's out there to be positive about?
This is the question that the author asked 160 scholars and scientific thinkers. John Brockman, the founder of Edge, the influential online salon, complied their answers in this book.
Nobel Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, Harvard professors and other world class thinkers laid bare their minds about what they're positive about. They are neither blindly nor naively optimistic. Their optimism is based on logical, professional views and insight.
Topics are wide-ranging, from physics and medicine to education and religion or the end of the world. They illustrate diverse sides of the world's future and why they're optimistic about it.
These great thinkers also present tasks that we should tackle to make a better world and this book may help change readers' perceptions of the future of mankind in a more positive way.
That is still how science works, even as the technology for observing and analyzing natural phenomena have grown to a high level of sophistication.
It is not how religion works. Faith is a sense of human spirituality that does not rely wholly on empirical observations. It relies on a cognitive element not evident in other animals, but one that is biologically based, according to Marc Hauser, Harvard professor of psychology and biological anthropology ("Moral Minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong," HarperCollins, 2006).
Hauser says a human's moral sense results from a human's ability "to foresee future rewards" in making decisions about how to behave toward another human being. Religious beliefs are not a deciding factor in moral behavior, Hauser said. Rather, he said, moral decisions are based on the ability of the person to forecast an outcome.
Religion and science also forecast outcomes, but one relies on faith, the other on testable concepts.
University of Chicago ecology professor Jerry Coyne cites elements of scientific inquiry include having testable ideas and relying on evidence in testing a theory (www.edge.org "Must we always cater to the faithful when teaching science?")
The presence of God is not a testable idea, unless the faithful accept that God is only a theory.
Proponents of intelligent design appear to be fearful that individuals cannot exercise faith while they engage in scientific study. Matthew 8:26 offers: "Why are ye fearful, Oh ye of little faith?"
"Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.
WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT
great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture."
Contributors include: STEVEN PINKER on the future of human evolution • RICHARD DAWKINS on the mysteries of courtship • SAM HARRIS on why Mother Nature is not our friend • NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB on the irrelevance of probability • ALUN ANDERSON on the reality of global warming • ALAN ALDA considers, reconsiders, and re-reconsiders God • LISA RANDALL on the secrets of the Sun • RAY KURZWEIL on the possibility of extraterrestrial life • BRIAN ENO on what it means to be a "revolutionary" • HELEN FISHER on love, fidelity, and the viability of marriage…and many others.
Praise for the online publication of
"The splendidly enlightened Edge website (www.edge.org) has rounded off each year of inter-disciplinary debate by asking its heavy-hitting contributors to answer one question. I strongly recommend a visit." The Independent
"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture." El Mundo
"As fascinating and weighty as one would imagine." The Independent
"They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds." The Guardian
"Even the world's best brains have to admit to being wrong sometimes: here, leading scientists respond to a new year challenge." The Times
"Provocative ideas put forward today by leading figures."The Telegraph
The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now." San Francisco Chronicle
"As in the past, these world-class thinkers have responded to impossibly open-ended questions with erudition, imagination and clarity." The News & Observer
"A jolt of fresh thinking...The answers address a fabulous array of issues. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake—bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up." The Globe and Mail
"Answers ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions." The Toronto Star
"For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. ...What a feast of egg-head opinionating!" National Review Online
"The optimistic visions seem not just wonderful but plausible." Wall Street Journal
"Persuasively upbeat." O, The Oprah Magazine
"Our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead." Seed
"Uplifting...an enthralling book." The Mail on Sunday
"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant bok: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)
"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald
"Provocative" The Independent
"Challenging notions put forward by some of the world's sharpest minds" Sunday Times
"A titillating compilation" The Guardian
"Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover
"Whether or not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." LA Times
"Belief appears to motivate even the most rigorously scientific minds. It stimulates and challenges, it tricks us into holding things to be true against our better judgment, and, like scepticism -its opposite -it serves a function in science that is playful as well as thought-provoking. not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." The Times
"John Brockman is the PT Barnum of popular science. He has always been a great huckster of ideas." The Observer
"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle—a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed
"Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian
"Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe
"Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4
"Intellectual and creative magnificence" The Skeptical Inquirer
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